By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — Seventy subway token booths have been closed citywide since May to help the MTA close its widening budget gap, but Harlem has been hit the hardest of any neighborhood, absorbing 10 percent of the closings.
When Nicole Thomas broke her foot earlier this year, she knew she could count on the token booth clerk at East 116th Street and Lexington Avenue to open the gated entrance for her because getting through the turnstile was difficult.
But since May, there hasn’t been a clerk at the uptown side of the 6 train. That station agent was one of the 266 who were let go by the MTA to close a $343 million budget deficit.
Though the cast is now off her foot, Thomas is one of many riders in Harlem who says she’s noticed an uptick in loitering and fare beating since the clerk was removed.
“I don’t feel safe with all the loitering,” Thomas, 21, said as she pointed out a mother struggling to open a door so she could push her baby carriage through. The woman was followed by two men walking through the gate without paying the fare.
“I was one of the people who needed help at one time. Now I don’t feel safe. There’s nobody here,” said Thomas, a psychology student at Monroe College.
Standing in the station at 116th Street for 20 minutes, DNAinfo noticed at least 17 people fare beating, including a group of 10 teens who walked through the door at once and three people selling swipes off a MetroCard. Several people had to cross the street to the downtown side because one of the vending machines was malfunctioning.
The downtown side, where a clerk was still stationed, was not nearly as chaotic.
“I’ve noticed throughout all of the areas that don’t have a clerk there are people hustling, jumping the turnstile and sleeping,” said Aisha Shabazz, who was traveling with her 4-year-old grandchild. “It seems like they do whatever they want in Harlem because downtown doesn’t seem this bad. I fear for my safety and would really feel better with a clerk.”
In Harlem, the station agent cuts stretch from 110th Street on the east side to 145th Street on the A, B, C, and D lines. Only two stations in Inwood and Washington Heights were affected.
“I have noticed more random men just hanging around,” said Mercedes Deleon, a communications worker who lives in East Harlem. “The loitering was always there but it seems like its gotten a lot worse recently.”
Jim Gannon, spokesman for the Transport Workers Union Local 100, said he is not surprised to hear riders raising these issues.
“A clerk on duty is a definite deterrent to crime and loitering because they have immediate access to supervisors and the police,” Gannon said. “Without that deterrent, that lifeline, you are leaving the system open.”
Another 200 station agents were told to turn in their badges and uniforms on Friday.
MTA spokesman Charles Seaton said every station has at least one clerk on one side and all stations are going to have intercoms that customers can use to get assistance. Stations without agents are regularly patrolled by the NYPD, he said.
“If riders see a problem, they should report it to the station agent on duty,” Seaton said.
Asked about the possible uptick in fare beating at stations without agents on one side, Seaton said that was a police issue.
“We have locations where we have clerks and we still have fare beating,” Seaton said.
Matthew Washington, chair of Community Board 11, which covers East Harlem, said he understands the concerns of local riders.
“The stations are underground and hidden to some degree,” Washington said. “So I understand not just the concerns about safety but for information purposes, getting a MetroCard and general troubleshooting. The MTA has challenges but reducing the ability to service users is a problem.”
But not everyone was letting the changes bother them. Retired corrections officer Joe Chase, 57, said he would be happy if they just swept the station more often.
“They clean the 125th stop a little more. This is filthy,” Chase said pointing out trash on the ground. “But I’ve lived in this city 57 years, all my life. This is just what it is.”